The False Gentrification Of New Orleans

August 29, 2015  |  

Crowds gather for Sunday brunch at the newly renovated St. Roch market in New Orleans. Source: AP

When Hurricane Katrina made landfall on Monday, Aug. 29, 2005, it served a devastating blow to a city so revered for its rich history and culture, as well as its festival atmosphere.

The city shut down for two weeks while rescue crews plucked stranded survivors from rooftops and shuttled evacuees from the collapsed Superdome to Houston and Baton Rouge, La. Nearly half a million residents were permanently displaced by the storm. Now as the city approaches the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, there are questions about the city’s development over the last decade.

In the past year, worries that gentrification would dilute the rich cultural history of New Orleans have expounded. And on the surface, it seems true. But the data does not quite support gentrification in its traditional form.

Instead Crescent City has fallen prey to what journalist Naomi Klein calls disaster capitalism. It’s the type of profiteering from disasters that Monique Harden, co-director and attorney for Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, has seen in the privatization of recovery efforts. Following the storm, Harden recalls that contracts to rebuild the city were overwhelmingly awarded to large, out-of-town firms. Housing projects and schools were demolished under the guise of an overhaul, but many of those decisions simply left evacuees with nowhere to return under the administrations of then-Mayor Ray Nagin and then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco.

“Did that have an effect in terms of keeping people away who were African-American?” Harden asks.

“Absolutely,” she says.

“People have not been able to come back to their neighborhoods and to their homes,” she says of areas that have staggered in the re-population and recovery that other areas have seen.

“We’re still reeling from those decisions,” says Harden. Perhaps she’s thinking of the children who fell behind, some of whom might never achieve the same level of success as their parents because the displacement disrupted their educations and lives.

But she’s also commenting on the city as a whole. Take a look at how the demographics of New Orleans have shifted.

According to the 2013 Census, about 99,650 fewer Black residents populate the city than in 2000. There’s been a reduction in the white population, too, though not to the same extent, while Latino and Asian residents have increased. Much of the 57 percent boom in the Latino community is due to the influx of migrant workers, some of whom put down roots.

They also drove up rents and created employment competition in an area where there is no minimum wage – at a time when the only helpful provision was suspended. This contributed to the further displacement of New Orleans natives who could no longer afford to live in the recovering metropolis.

There are other reasons for the shift, too.

In the weeks immediately following Hurricane Katrina, insurance companies outright refused to pay claims, citing loopholes in flood clauses in a way that was almost malicious. Even those who fought to receive nuggets from their policies struggled.

Harden saw joblessness as a barrier to displaced residents who wanted to return.

“Trying to find stable employment has become very difficult, if not impossible,” Harden says.

Many industries collapsed. Public schools and universities were closed in the months following Katrina, so those jobs weren’t there. And the tourism industry, which supports about 78,000 jobs, would need to be restored.

“The image of New Orleans was probably the hardest hit,” said Mark Romig, president and CEO of the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation.

“People still thought we had water in the streets a year after the storm,” Romig says.

Blanco made the decision to fast track the repair of the Louisiana Superdome, now branded by Mercedes-Benz, and the convention center. Romig says the impetus for focusing on those attractions was partially due to press attention that continuously showed the roof peeled from the iconic sporting facility.

“We knew that a renovated Superdome reopening would be a sure sign to the rest of the world that New Orleans was back in business.”

And it has. In 2014, New Orleans had 9.52 million visitors who spent a record $6.82 billion during stays, according to a study by the University of New Orleans.

Unfortunately while some reports tout that New Orleans  , they ignore the fact that many residents struggle to afford the cost of living. So people fleeing the city aren’t being nudged out by hipster, young singles and new school yuppies the way locals are in cities being infamously gentrified across the United States.

It’s also important to consider that impoverished Black residents aren’t the only ones slipping away. The total reported population dropped 29 percent in the decade between the 2000 and 2010 censuses. And while the demographic might seem less heterogeneous and more wealthy, that has less to do with who’s moving in than who didn’t make it back.


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